In the rough desert country of New Mexico, Ben Johnson runs a horse ranch called the Bar J. More than a business, the ranch is home to a collection of drifters, gamblers, drunks, and gunslingers, all of whom have found a second chance at life. What’s more, the ranch is a haven for men who prefer the company of other men, like Ben himself. He and his young lover, Obie, deal with the everyday running of the Bar J and try to keep their ranch hands out of trouble. But when the arrival of strangers brings threats from without and within, Obie and Ben find out who their friends truly are and whether the strength of their love can see them through.
I should start with a confession - this is the second in a series but since the first part is in an anthology that I don't own I haven't read it. Maybe this book would have been better if I had but I don't think the things I had a problem with are related to that.
Before I tell you what those things are let me just say I did enjoy this book, it's just I could have enjoyed it a lot more...
There are some historical things, like Vargas and his unit of Mexican Union soldiers, that didn't feel quite right to me and the author does fall into the trap of only having the characters we aren't meant to like have a problem with the heroes' homosexuality, but those were things I could probably have overlooked if they'd been the only issues I had.
My real problem was that I'm not sure the author knew what story she was trying to tell. There was the established relationship between Obie and Ben, the slowly building romance between Temper and Larry, the mystery of James Arkady and his motivations and his past with Larry, and the tough times the ranch was suffering through the actions of a drunk sheriff, an unpleasant mill owner, and a somewhat insane Mexican Captain. In a book this size any two of those could probably have been done well, with the others as minor sub plots. Unfortunately, the author seemed to want all of them to be the main plot of the book and the focus shifted from one thread to another, never spending enough time or effort on any of them and it felt like we ended up with four sub plots and no main thread pulling them together.
I would have liked her to focus on Obie and Ben more I think and have the story revolve around them. To be honest she could probably have saved the Temper/Larry sub plot and made that a standalone story. I really wish she had, because I'd definitely read it.
The book is really saved by the characters. The villains have a tendency to be a bit comic book and two dimensional, but the author has a real gift for creating interesting protagonists that you'd really like to meet. Ben is the epitome of an old fashioned ranch owner from a Western, I kept wanting to cast Lorne Greene in the role. Obie is interesting and I loved seeing him have to step up to the plate and be the mature one holding things together when things went bad and Ben fell apart. Temper is another brilliant character, whose history we saw snapshots of, and whose skills and personality came in very useful for the ranch. He really would have benefited from being the star of his own romance and not having to share the limelight with Ben and Obie.
The minor characters were well drawn too. Sam, the owner of the neighbouring ranch, was a strong, capable, likable fellow. The preacher - the only one of the 'good guys' who had any issue with the heroes' sexuality - was sympathetic and well written and I enjoyed the scenes he was in.
Oh and the sex scenes ... were pretty damn hot too! They were in character, rather than the characters becoming cardboard cut out porn stars as soon as the clothes came off, actually added to the story rather than just being there for the sake of it, and had some nice touches (such as the fantasy of bending your partner over a hay bale turning out to be pretty uncomfortable for your lover when you actually try to make it reality) that made them feel more real than can be the case in adult novels.
VERDICT - worth a read. Not perfect, but definitely enjoyable. 4 out of 5.